A week in New Orleans is a sobering experience (not a word often used to describe my hometown). It is at once frightening and inspiring.

It’s frightening for the obvious reasons. In many neighborhoods, homes stand damaged and seemingly abandoned. But it’s inspiring to see that so many New Orleanians have returned and resolved to make their lives normal again. In Broadmoor, middle class and low-lying, FEMA trailers sit in front yards and there’s construction on almost every block. Across town, restaurants are reopening, jobs are plentiful, and new housing is coming available daily. Mountains of trash are disappearing and schools are reopening.

But it’s hard for New Orleanians to see things that way. Ask them how they’re doing and they have one answer: They’re tired–tired of having to cope for so long, and tired of a lack of leadership when it’s so crucial.

In the next few months, Louisiana will start handing out $7.5 billion in federal rebuilding and buyout grants of up to $150,000 each. In some parts of Louisiana, visionary reconstruction plans are getting under way. In the Cajun town of Cameron, wiped out by Hurricane Rita, shrimp fishermen sneered at first when new urbanist architects like Andres Duany started talking about rebuilding their town with a marina for the well-to-do and houses on small lots around a town center of shops and green space. But when they looked at the future of shrimping and the economics of the 21st century, they embraced it.

New Orleans is months behind the rest of the Gulf Coast. Mayor Ray Nagin first endorsed a plan that would have abandoned neighborhoods like Broadmoor and the Ninth Ward. That’s when neighborhood activists began developing their own proposals with the help of private foundations. Meanwhile, the City Council is hiring its own consultants. No one is promoting a unified vision of what the city should become.

What’s that got to do with the Triangle? We’re in much the same boat. It isn’t the sudden devastation of a hurricane we’re facing, it’s nail after nail we’re driving into the coffin of sprawl. We’re killing ourselves with a build-and-drive mentality that is our answer to bad levees. Instead of ignoring the cost in gasoline, schools, utilities and the mounting human price we pay in time and frustration, we should look at the sad results in other cities that have gone this route and find more efficient, attractive and affordable models. And we need impassioned leaders who can demonstrate what’s at stake and offer a clear alternative, not ones who say yes to every project that takes another shovel of dirt from the levee. Because one day, we’re going to find ourselves in as deep a hole as New Orleans. And there won’t be billions of federal dollars to help us out.